The South Downs

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‘Evil’ Route – pdf
Distance: 82.4 km
Height Gain: 2128m
Highest Point: 249m
All day. With tea stops.

‘Lazy Sunday’ Route – pdf
Distance: 39.5km
Height Gain: 957m
Highest Point: 201 m
4-5 hours

‘Fat Boyfriend’ Route – pdf
Distance: 12.6 km
Height Gain: 301m
Highest Point: 242m
2 hours approx

The South Downs are, as the name suggests, the closest the hills get to the south coast without tumbling straight into deckchair territory. Stretching from Winchester to Eastbourne, they form a natural barrier separating intense coastal development from the ‘terribly English’ countryside to the north. I’ve lived here for nearly a decade and despite being flighty in my residential habits I still don’t seem to be ready to leave; there’s something about the area that grabs transients by the back teeth and makes them stay. The riding’s astronomically good, in a guilty secret kind of way: I can step out of the front door and be riding on dirt within two minutes if the traffic lights are green, and while northerners malign anything south of Dartford as ‘flat’, there are more hills in the vicinity than a sane individual would want to ride in a week.

issue24pic2The Evil Route should be a fair test for anyone who’s ever uttered the words ‘soft’, ‘shandy’ and ‘southern’ in the same breath. It takes in two good handfuls of our favourite brutal, tooth-sucking climbs and the dearth of rocks and altitude is more than compensated for by the sly roots, ruts and infamous icy-green chalk. If that’s still not enough for you (and at any time other than the peak of midsummer fitness, it should be), then the Fat Boyfriend and Sunday routes conveniently join up with it to make the silly idea to end all silly ideas.

Sausages

Local geography means that routes usually resemble links of sausages: small loops skipping up and down both sides of the ridge that hugs Brighton and Hove to the coast, criss-crossing the major thoroughfare of the South Downs Way long-distance path. While this can make navigation a tad fiddly if you’re not familiar with the area, it means that rides can be as long (or as short) as you like, and that loops can be jettisoned in favour of a rapid scoot along the tops if the weather blows in.

Most sections work well in both directions, too, and can be reversed at will: rides are more likely to be limited by facilities than hills. With the exception of seasonal refreshments and taps along the South Downs Way, there are no opportunities to refuel on the tops and it’s not unusual to find yourself sitting in a pub garden on the wrong side of the hills, looking at the (vertical) way home with far too much refreshment in your tummy and wishing for a handy Stannah.

This is the domain of the finely turned scone, and it’s possible to plan the entirety of the big route around meal times if you’re prepared to pedal quickly between sittings. Start with an early bacon sarnie amongst the remnants of the city’s nightlife at the Market Diner (all night caff which serves the wholesale market over the road), or opt for a more civilised wake-up, with better coffee and a nicer view on the seafront at Marroccos. Lunch and a pint of Harveys in the garden of
the Shepherd and Dog and a brief pause for afternoon tea in Wiston or Steyning, before finishing up with fish and chips on the beach and doughnuts from the Palace Pier for afters, if you can still pedal that far.

Laundry Chuting

issue24pic3However, if you’re prepared to forego the sea view over supper in favour of an Indian, we’ve suggested you start the Evil ride at Steyning as an alternative to braving the seething mass of humanity (and awful parking problems) of central Brighton. A quick spin along the Downs Link (forerunner in the ‘Boring But Useful Trail of the Year’ awards) brings you to the first climb of many – familiar to anyone that’s ever ridden the South Downs Way, the wall of grass ahead is mostly an optical illusion but painful enough straight after breakfast. Sticking to the quieter trails towards Devils Dyke, we keep as far away as we can from the ‘motorway’; on a good day with a tailwind this rollercoaster’s a rambler-dodging breeze but it’s daunting to look over both shoulders and realise that the far points of the day are out of sight already. Fulking Escarpment provides just enough exposure whichever way it’s ridden (particularly if the dew’s still down on the rabbit-riddled grass) – the pub at the bottom of the hill has a footpath leading right into the garden but at this hour we’re still running on tea. A quick grovel to the top of Newtimber, a customary pause at the top for a breather
whist watching lemmings swarming the A23, and then it’s on to Laundry Chute.

The grand tradition of naming trails has always seemed to be more prevalent in the south than anywhere else in the country (until a certain journo moved up north and exported the habit, anyway). It might seem a bit pretentious and arbitrary (after all, we could just name them by grid reference but that wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun…), but it does have a solid grounding in common sense. It’s crowded, here: we don’t have wide open tracts of moorland to spread our wings over, or singletrack that goes on for miles and miles with a handy village at each end. Our trails are
compact and erring toward bijou, crammed together in pockets of wilderness that nestle between the houses; it’s perfectly possible and usual to cross a hill two or three times in one ride, coming perilously close to committing the cardinal sin of retracing your own tyre tracks but sticking to a different path each time while passing within 100 yards of your previous route.

Naming Names

issue24pic4Without names, the necessary post-ride dissection would be exasperating. ‘You know, up that bit beside the wall, right at the top and then immediate left over the fallen tree’. ‘What, the one before the trail with the fallen tree on it?’ ‘No, the other fallen tree…’ Newlydiscovered trails suffer a period of purgatory before the incident or quirk by which they’ll come to be known reveals itself: an extended probation before distinguishing themselves amongst the crowds of
more ordinary ‘motorways’. The evil route takes in Rosie’s Gate, Hand of God, Blinded By Light and the Wookie
Climb; Sharon, Secret and Tetanus are all just off-piste but within spitting distance of more regular haunts.

There’s a fun detour around the northern foot of Wolstonbury here but we’ve deliberately omitted it from the route, as outside the summer months it’s the perfect illustration of why many locals secrete a singlespeed in the shed. August bakes the trails to dust but come the darker months, the chalky clay soaks up rain and becomes a thick porridge that clogs tyres and drivechains to the point of mechanical death. Some rights of way become impassable in winter; the high user density means that riders share the trails with large numbers of horses from the stables and livery yards, as well as farm vehicles and the odd illicit trail bike, all of whom conspire to turn buffed singletrack into a hub-deep sticky mess. It’s hard sometimes to watch favourite paths degenerate as the autumn rolls in but you have to remind yourself that there are enough trails to go round, it’s just time to get the map out and be creative again…

The path-less-travelled now heads for the Jack and Jill windmills (home to two working mills and the WI cake stand on summer weekends). If you’re riding with a group, try and get to the top first: it’s awesome, and not a little comical, to sit at the top and watch your mates winching themselves up out of the Weald. Climbs like this are what makes the riding here that much tougher than you might expect: for every long, lazy descent, where you get plenty of time to
relax and take in the view, there’s a sharp, cruel climb waiting to claw back any energy you might have recouped. ‘One more hill’ rides have been honed to a fine art; riding until one or more companions cracks, usually just before the last climb of the day, and then heckling them all the way to the top. Cruel to be kind, as the saying goes.

A Wee Loop and Home for Curry

issue24pic5At Keymer Post it’s time to turn around and retrace the hills back towards the river, if you’re not planning on linking up with the other routes: all three dovetail neatly together here. With the exception of crossovers at Saddlescombe and Truleigh Hill, both of which are useful for taps, there’s no duplication of trails and while you might be tempted to snip the route, pedalling up the Hidden Valley (Mk.3) with only sheep, sky and a couple of pylons for company will soon
change your mind. While you’re only a few hundred metres away from the SDW, you might as well be miles from anywhere; the lesser-known corners of the Downs can be amazingly quiet, given the proximity of the densely populated coastal suburbs, but out of season or on gorgeous summer evenings you’ll usually have the hills to yourself, a handful of solitary dog walkers and the obligatory hardcore commuter excluded.

The western side of the Adur serves up a few more nasty climbs. Don’t underestimate this last loop: if you’ve spent a bit too much time over your lunchtime pint then take care not to get caught out, as there’s no short bail-out option if you run out of light. Climbing on singletrack might seem like a waste but when there’s an equally lovely descent down the other side, well, it’d be rude not too… A wee loop across the A24 ups the woodsy fun content, before ducking back to cut through the contours several times and then up the long drag to Chanctonbury. Pause at the top under the guise of catching breath and the view is stunning – all the way from the Isle of Wight to the Seven Sisters under a blanket of golden evening sun.

issue24pic6It’s a shame to drop back down into the darkness of Steyning woods for the last time but the day’s nearly over and with the setting sun behind us pouring liquid light through the trees, we head for the last descent. A little bit much for tired arms at the end of a long, long day? Perhaps – it’s tempting to blame the rigids on the borrowed bike for the clattery line choice but we’re having too much fun to even think about it. Whoops and giggles ensue as we tumble down the hill,
surprised to find that summer storms have washed the topsoil and leaf mould away since the last time we passed this way, leaving bare white chalk steps all the way that are far deeper than memory recalls. A few pedal turns along Mouse Lane and we’re home – and the Maharajha’s open, too…

Getting there

Brighton has good rail links, if you’re prepared to book in advance and aren’t trying to travel at rush hour with your bike. If driving, Steyning is on the A283, off the A27 at Shoreham if coming from the east or west; use A23/A27 if coming from the north.

Staying there

Truleigh Hill and Brighton both have YHAs. 0870 770 6113 – reservations@yha.org.uk
The Castle Hotel in Bramber can accommodate bikes and is coincidentally right next door to the curry house…
01903 812102

Eating there

Good pubs abound: the Shepherd and Dog (Fulking), the Royal Oak (Poynings), and the Snowdrop (Lewes) are all worth a mention, as is the local brewery, Harveys (Lewes), who do brewery tours. There are good tea-rooms in Wiston, Steyning (best dry days only!) and Stanmer Park, as well as the fabled Ditchling Beacon ice cream van and Marroccos (Hove seafront) for coffee, ice-cream and the best pizza in town. Bankers and Bardsleys (Brighton) both do great fish and chips. Water taps at Saddlescombe Farm and Botolphs/Truleigh Hill YHA.

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South East England